Merck & Co Inc on Monday said it would buy worldwide commercial rights to NewLink Genetics Corp's experimental vaccine against the Ebola virus.
NewLink, whose subsidiary licensed commercial rights to the rVSV-EBOV vaccine in 2010, said it would receive $50 million US plus royalties from Merck.
Large late-stage trials of the product could begin early next year, said Merck, the No. 2 U.S. drugmaker and one of the world's biggest makers of vaccines.
- Ebola outbreak: What you need to know now
- Canada should cancel NewLink Ebola vaccine contract, critic says
- Ebola vaccine clinical trial in Halifax overwhelmed with volunteers
Merck, which will be able to speed up and significantly boost production, will take over development of the vaccine and any follow-on products.
The Public Health Agency of Canada, which originally developed the vaccine, will retain non-commercial rights to it.
The deal between Merck and NewLink, a tiny biotechnology company based in Ames, Iowa, comes as other drugmakers are also racing to test and scale up production of treatments and preventive vaccines for Ebola, which has killed more than 5,400 people this year.
It is the worst Ebola outbreak on record. Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia account for all but 15 of the deaths.
The Walter Reed Army Institute of Research and the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, are conducting early-stage trials of the NewLink vaccine. The trials involve healthy volunteers and are testing whether the vaccine is safe and provokes a protective immune response.
Should those Phase I studies prove favourable, the NIH plans to begin large late-stage trials early next year. The World Health Organization is also coordinating early-stage trials in Switzerland, Germany, Kenya and Gabon.
In a regulatory filing on Monday, NewLink said Merck would pay it $30 million US upfront and $20 million US once larger formal trials begin. The company will also be eligible to receive royalties on sales in certain markets.
Rival drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline Plc is developing its own Ebola vaccine with the NIH and plans to build a stockpile of thousands of doses for emergency deployment if results are good.
Elsewhere on Monday, the UN Ebola Emergency Response Mission said it will not fully meet its Dec. 1 target for containing the virus due to escalating numbers of cases in Sierra Leone and elsewhere, said Anthony Banbury, the head of UNMEER.
The mission set the goal in September of having 70 per cent of Ebola patients under treatment and 70 per cent of Ebola
victims safely buried. That target will be achieved in some areas, Banbury told Reuters. He cited progress in Liberia
On Monday, Liberia's president urged a redoubling of efforts to reach the government's goal of having zero new Ebola cases by Dec. 25.
"We've set a pretty tough target. But when you set a target it means that you stay focused on that target and on that goal and then you double your efforts," Sirleaf said during a ceremony marking the docking of a Dutch aid ship in the capital, Monrovia.
"When you're running a race, as you get closer and closer to the finish line you pick up the speed because you want to make sure that that last mile you will give it your best bet," Sirleaf added.
Italy's health ministry said Monday that an Italian doctor who has been working in Sierra Leone has tested positive for the Ebola virus and is being transferred to Rome for treatment. It is Italy's first confirmed case of Ebola.